Causality, Poetics and the Desire for Plot
Two great mysteries sharpen in the approach to death: What will become of me? And what force in my life could have born me here? Sándor Márai’s most recently translated work, Esther’s Inheritance, a brief and dreamy novel, issues from the second. The title refers to a modest country home that the title character and narrator, Esther, surrenders to Lajos, a con man she once loved. This novel issues from a desire to explain, to locate in a causal relationship to its universe, a single, irrational act. Why did Esther renounce the house? She tries, with an intensely analytical and strangely compelling desperation, to retell the story of the theft, or gift, of her house as rational or even inevitable. Causality, according to Aristotle, is the essence of plot. And in Esther’s Inheritance, as the narrator recounts her loss, the desire for causality itself is both a source and a stand-in for plot.
Born in 1900 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Márai was popular and prolific between the wars. Yet he died in obscurity in San Diego in 1989. He was “rediscovered” in forgotten French translation in the late nineties, and his work has, in the last decade, enjoyed something of a vogue. Esther’s Inheritance, written in 1939, is the most recent of his works to be translated into English.
There is an overwhelming evenness to the psychological plane of Esther’s Inheritance. We are reminded in every paragraph, in every sentence nearly, that Esther is telling the story from a removed present, ruminating in the foreground on a backgrounded past. All of the language in the novel emanates from the point on the horizon, three years later, as Esther approaches her death. Remembering her voice on the day she learned Lajos would return, she reflects:
What would my voice have sounded like? It is unlikely that I was screaming with joy. I must have spoken like a sleepwalker suddenly woken out of her sleep. I had been sleepwalking for twenty years. For twenty years I had been walking at the edge of a precipice, neatly balanced, calm and smiling. Now I had been awoken and knew the truth. But I no longer felt dizziness. There is something calming about the sense of reality, whether of life or death.
There is something calming, too, about the way that Esther’s prose alternates like a pendulum between the analytic and the lyrical, brushing only briefly against the concrete, but something terribly sad as well. She lulls the reader. But the consciousness producing this narration is a distressed consciousness; it is a consciousness that cannot report without obsessively, exhaustively, abstracting from. What is the vertigo that accompanies misperception? Why is it calming to know the truth? What is true? The constantly renewed leap from memory to principal, from sound of her voice to nature of truth, is a habit foreign to a mind at rest, and it seems, at times, to verge on self punishment.
The characters speak to each other in much the same way that Esther writes. They hold forth on truth and fate and duty for pages on end. Prior to the novel’s opening, Lajos married Esther’s sister and they raised a child together.? After his wife’s death, we learn that Lajos returned a family ring to Esther, who plans one day to give it to Lajos’s daughter, Eva, her niece. He made the gesture with all the right intentions, generosity, forgiveness, and shared grief, but he had sold the real heirloom years before and replaced it with a fake. After Esther’s niece asks Esther for the ring, Esther confronts Lajos about the knot of lies. He says:
Please understand that there are no gauges in life. I might have said something to Eva, I might have made a mistake yesterday or ten years ago, something to do with money or rings or words. I have never in my life resolved on a course of action. Ultimately, people are only responsible for the things they consciously decide to do. ... Actions? What are they? Instincts that take you by surprise. People stand there and watch themselves acting. It is intention, Esther, intention is guilt. My intentions have always been honorable.
These long monologues about abstract ideas (most of them governed by one word: guilt, fate, duty) compete with each other for philosophical authority in the novel. But unlike the ideological competition Bakhtin imagines, with ideologies embedded implicitly in many languages, this is an explicit ideological debate between, or rather within, a single voice. Esther’s consciousness seems to pick up each interpretive strategy in turn. Maybe Lajos does escape responsibility, at least for the page of this speech. What would that mean, on principal? How would a defense of that logic sound? This pattern of thought, a speculative trying out of different theses about the past, rather than the experience of memory, motivates speech as it is represented in the novel.
Dialogue shades into disquisition. The novel itself shades into something that has the feel of a long essay or perhaps a meditative, ruminating sermon. The story does not have quite the right size and shape for a novel. Full of spectacular entrances and exits, and of self-conscious allusions to the theatricality of life, it feels at times like a parlor drama. It has the taut surface, aesthetic unity, and descriptive economy of a long short story. I admire the evenness of this psychological plane, and the evenness of the prose it produces, but this consistency verges on monotonous. The voice just barely sustains the reader through the hundred and fifty pages; it could not, I suspect, sustain more.
Esther feels compelled to write, before she dies, the story of the day Lajos returned to her family’s modest country home to rob her of it. Lajos, who loved her and married her sister, is a dangerous and beautiful failure, a con-man who believes passionately in his own lies. He deflects responsibility, in a larger, moral sphere with his speech making, and among the other characters with his fantastic conviction and shear dramatic force. Esther, too, cannot help but believe him. But she suspects and fears her belief. “I was frightened of it,” writes Esther of her sister’s ring, “I feared the knowledge I had never put into words, I couldn’t help but know everything Lajos touched lost its meaning and value, broke down into its elements, changed as did the noble metals once the alchemists got them into their retorts.” In retrospect, Lajos presents as much of a philosophical problem as he does an emotional one.
In a way, Esther’s acquiescence itself, her decision to give away her inheritance, her house and garden and the modest comfort they provide, does not come as a surprise. We never learn the details of her destitution, but we know that without the house she cannot support herself, and she intimates that, after retelling the story, she will soon die. From the first pages of the novel the central consciousness, the older, narrating Esther knows that Lajos will take something terrible when he returns. The climax, the gift or theft, itself is inconsequential. It is a pretend climax; a kind of narrative tromp-l’œil. The real drama in the novel swells from the framing device: the older Esther’s desire to explain.
We come into the world with an intuitive confidence in causality. For instance, even infants understand the laws of physics — one ball colliding with another will likely send it ricocheting away. We believe, likewise, that people do things for reasons, in response to some external condition, or because of their temperment. A good plot, says Aristotle, “has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it.” Causally linked events, and people performing actions that are necessary (in response to external events) or probable (because of temperament) are its bricks and mortar. Whether the physical universe or human beings are actually governed by laws of causality or not, the desire to order our experience by the laws of Aristotelian plot is something primordial. Like Esther, we need cause, and we will pursue it and imbue it at nearly any cost.
“I have started to think,” Esther writes, “that the great, decisive moments of our lives are far less conscious at the time than they seem later when we are reminiscing and taking stock.” Embers, the first of Márai’s novels to be translated into English capitalizes on the same trick. The earlier novel has a very different “plot,” an Arthurian plot about men’s friendship, aristocracy, fidelity, and betrayal, but Embers, like Esther’s Inheritance, is delivered retrospectively, by an aging narrator, as in investigation into the machinery of one inexplicable act that determines the course of a life. Both work like dreamy detective stories; they rely on mystery to produce tension. For this same reason, both run the risk of stagnation. Aristotle demands movement in plot as well. The desire for plot, no matter how carefully shaped and forcefully felt, is an interesting but imperfect substitute for plot itself.
Esther’s Inheritance is short, and it could not be longer. Ultimately it deals in reason’s response to something like fate. The novel’s seductive power is bound up in the urgency of making rational what was not.
Carolyn Gaebler ’10 is baking madly. She would like to know who took her flour sifter. She needs it back.